Investigation: Why is it so hard to walk around Oxford?

Lots of Oxford students spend more time cycling, rowing or Voi-ing around the city than walking. But if you’re a woman, or from a socio-economically deprived background, then your experiences of getting around the city are likely to be markedly different and more dangerous. After being sworn at and almost run over at crossings, I wanted to investigate what’s being done to protect pedestrians in Oxford. 

 The March 2021 census showed that 21.6% of commuters in Oxford travel by foot. Whilst this figure may have been skewed by lockdown, it still outstrips the 7.6% of people across England and Wales who walk to work regularly. Oxford is known, amongst other things, for being a great walking city, with the ghost tours and the Uncomfortable Oxford initiative favourites amongst students and tourists alike. 

 The Oxford Student surveyed 89 Oxford residents about their experiences of walking in Oxford. Although over 55% of respondents feel very safe walking during daylight hours in the city (a nine or ten on our scale), 20% of respondents have been pushed into a cycle lane or the road by fellow pedestrians. Over half of respondents reported cyclists refusing to stop at pedestrian crossings, pedestrians cutting in front of them and pedestrians failing to move out of the way on pavements. This suggests that, even in what is supposed to soon be a “15 minute city”, walking is not an easy task. 

 But comments most frequently centred around pedestrians walking too slowly, combined with the narrowness of pavements. Specific places recurred too – the roundabout opposite the King’s Arms, cyclists on Cornmarket, slow tourists and the volume of buses on the High Street. For me, the traffic lights at the end of Longwall Street and crossing on St Clements have proven to be particularly dangerous.

I wanted to see if these anecdotes were substantiated, so approached several councillors and Oxfordshire locals for comment. I shared how, from mine and my friends’ experiences, it seemed to be our gender as women that affected our walks. Councillor Louise Upton, who worked on the Safer Streets measures to improve women’s safety at night, said that the city council’s antisocial behaviour team is hoping to receive funding to go into schools and speak to boys about their attitudes towards women and girls. 

 Nina Sarpong, who runs independent sports retailer Runwize and set up a running group for women last year, said that she has been affected by the expectation that runners move off the pavement and put themselves in potential danger. East Oxford MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, Anneliese Dodds agreed that “pedestrian safety must of course be a priority for this city”. She invited me to a surgery to discuss this issue further, although her team is yet to make contact. 

 Green party Councillor Emily Kerr also replied, citing an occasion when a male cyclist demanded that she say “thank you” for him stopping at a pedestrian crossing. We agreed to meet. 

 Kerr has been a vocal supporter for Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) and active travel. She has found that men only tend to approach her to complain about the difficulties of walking around Oxford after they had children. This is a time when men and women alike are likely to be hypervigilant to road safety, and Oxfordshire County Council’s “Park and Stride” initiative is aiming to make the school run less anxiety-inducing.

 Kerr was also emphatic about the impact of reducing cars on Oxford’s poorest residents, particularly the 26% of children in the city who live below the poverty line. For many, walking is a necessity intimately tied up with poverty. Oxford is the second least equal city in the UK in terms of income inequality, meaning that the socio-economic divide between drivers and walkers can be vast. Oxford is also the least affordable city in the UK, which has pushed lower-income families out of the city centre, forcing them to become increasingly reliant on walking and public transport. So whilst walking isn’t mentioned much in Oxford city council’s strategy for 2020-2024, ensuring that it is easy to get around on foot would massively impact the daily life of not just students and tourists, but locals too. 

 And it’s Oxford’s most vulnerable residents who are likely to suffer the health impacts associated with walking in and around the city too. A January 2020 report from Centre for Cities found that living near a busy road may stunt lung growth in children by 14.1% in Oxford, compared to 12.5% in London. This stunting can leave children at risk of developing long-term health problems. The case of Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died after an acute asthma attack brought on by high levels of PM 2.5 in south London, shows that walking near congested roads can be deadly for children, too. 

 However, throughout this investigation it has been difficult to collect Oxford-specific data about the impact of vehicles upon pedestrians. Although Kerr suspected that the majority of driving offences were committed by men in Oxford – as they are on a national scale – the police require two minutes of filming prior to an offence occurring, making road crimes semi-decriminalised in some parts of the city, like St Clements and Cowley Road. 

 She added that “the police simply don’t have the time or resources to enforce these issues”, and that changes had to happen at a national level too. Most e-scooters remain illegal, for example, despite their prolificness in Oxford. 

 As Caroline Criado-Perez wrote in her 2019 book “Invisible Women”, cities have long been designed for men’s needs, which revolve around linear car journeys to and from work. Whilst Criado-Perez’s work has been criticised for its binaristic vision of gender difference, her ideas are not new. In 1981, the Matrix Feminist Design Cooperative launched their manifesto, contesting the patriarchal design of cities. They published, held exhibitions and initiated radical building projects, providing spaces for women to flee from domestic abuse, learn English and live in lesbian and gay housing co-operatives. 

 And Oxford is not distanced from these developments either. The School of Geography and the Environment has played a seminal role in fostering feminist thinkers, including former Head of School Professor Gillian Rose. Logically, it is strange that a city which has long been associated with activism remains so exclusionary for pedestrians.

 But Kerr believes that it doesn’t have to be this way. A simple change to Oxford’s streets could involve implementing the Dutch Entrance Curb, which instead of causing the whole pavement to slope down, makes it easier and safer for pedestrians to cross. This could make walking better, not just for those with mobility issues. 

 But, these changes would be costly, Kerr admits. And they don’t solve the issue which she highlights as key: “we’ve got to restrict cars in Oxford”. 

 Over the past 30 years, cars have been getting progressively bigger. This puts a strain on roads, pushes cyclists towards the pavement, and leads to less room for pedestrians. The problem has been partly mitigated by pedestrianisation, like on Broad Street, but there remained 91 pedestrian casualties in Oxfordshire in 2021 (the most recent, and local, data available). A six-week consultation into East Oxford’s low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) began on 5th June, although vandalism has hindered council efforts so far. 
Fundamentally, this is not just a gender issue. Whilst it’s important that everyone feels safe using the city, everyone will also be better off with fewer potholes, safer crossings and clearer streets. Organisations such as the Oxford Civic Society are aiming to improve walking routes in the city too, although their desire to make Oxford the “street party capital of the UK” shows how the banality of walking is often subsumed by more interesting and current issues.

Image description: Cyclists crossing Magdalen Bridge

Image Credits: tejvanphotos via Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)